What to Read Next (No. 138): new novels by Black women // interview with Christina Crook

In the last few weeks I’ve read two highly acclaimed new novels by Black women, both of which I enjoyed. Just a couple weeks ago I said I was having a hard time with realist/modernist novels, but each of these hooked me and were read within a few days. I can’t explain it, other than to say that they’re obviously very well done books.

I also got to ask Christina Crook a few questions about her reading.

Let’s get right to it.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Published: 2020 | Pages: 343

“You can escape a town, but you cannot escape blood.”

Our latest book club selection was met with mostly mixed reviews, getting ratings between 2.5-3.5 (out of 5) across the board. My thoughts were at the top end of that scale, but I’m easy when it comes to books. Our club knows that my wife is the far better arbiter of a book’s quality than I am; I enjoy ‘em all! Anyways…

Desiree and Stella are teenagers when they run away from their small-town Louisiana home to try their luck in New Orleans. They’re light-skinned black girls—light enough to pass as white, in fact. One day, out of the blue, one of them takes off in order to live life as a white woman, abandoning everything she’s known in order to fully embrace that existence.

But the next generation of the Vignes family catches on to the lies and tries to figure out what it is that defines someone’s identity—gender? skin color? hometown? There are a lot of characters and intersecting ideas in Bennett’s second novel, and our book club was immersed in trying to figure out what the main idea was (and what the last few lines really meant). That sounds like a complaint—it somewhat is—but it’s not always a bad thing when an author has you contemplating a number of tangled ideas. I’m speculating, but perhaps the intent was to portray a story in which questions of identity and family and meaning are not so easily untangled or resolved.

The writing was very good and the unique premise was definitely thought-provoking, but the development of it all left just a little bit to be desired. It’s not a book that will make my best of the year list, but if someone asked me specifically about The Vanishing Half, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

A Few Bookish Questions With Christina Crook

Christina Crook is the author of one of my favorite books on digital philosophy, The Joy of Missing Out, and the host JOMOcast. Check out everything she does (including on Instagram); you won’t be disappointed.

1. Your work is about reconnecting with the real world and the "good burdens" around us. What books have most helped shape your thinking about tech and meaning and what makes life worth living? 

The books that have most shaped my philosophy of technology and my belief that to be human means to remain connected to our humanness and to reality, are:

Albert Borgmann's Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry 

Wendell Berry's What Are People For?

Kathleen Norris' The Quotidian Mysteries

James Williams' Stand Out of Our Light

Jean Vanier's Becoming Humanif I am honest, the revelations about Vanier have tainted this one for me but it has deeply shaped my beliefs about human value

2. Do you have a genre or subject area you can't get enough of or are particularly drawn to? Some favorites in that genre?

Technology! and narrative non-fiction.

Currently enjoying Keri Smith's delightful boundary-bending romp, The Wander Society.

3. Has 2020 changed your reading at all? Either in the content itself or your reading practices?

For me, 2020 became all about the mental, emotional and spiritual disciplines. This year, I've read:

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Modern Library, trans: Gregory Hays)

Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez

Mindfulness by Harvard Business Review Press (part of their Emotional Intelligence Series) — the opening essay is written by Dr. Ellen Langer, PhD, “the mother of mindfulness,” who I had on my podcast earlier this year

4. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list? 

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown + Indistractable by Nir Eyal (both forthcoming guests on the pod)

Untamed by Glennon Doyle (re-read)

Heidi by Johanna Spyri (read aloud to my daughter) — I just discovered Heidi was originally published in 1881 in two parts as Heidi: Her Years of Wandering and Learning and Heidi: How She Used What She Learned — it seems wandering and learning are themes for me this year.

5. Are there books you find yourself recommending a lot, gifting a lot, or generally just thinking/talking a lot about?

The aforementioned Albert Borgmann's Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry — which introduces the concept of good burdens

James Williams' Stand Out of Our Lightthe best book I have ever read on the attention economy

The Lifters by Dave Eggers — I read this book aloud to my two sons and daughter this spring and it was such a perfect metaphor for 2020: the obstinate pursuit of hope in the midst of despair

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Published: 2020 | Pages: 305

This is a book that gets smarter and smarter the more I think about it, and has now firmly placed itself into upper level of novels I’ve read this year. This is Kiley Reid’s first novel and it has deservedly earned a spot on the Booker Prize longlist.

Emira Tucker, 25-year-old babysitter to 3-year-old Briar, has been accosted by a security guard at a local supermarket on suspicion of kidnapping. It’s late at night and Emira (a black woman) just isn’t dressed quite right or acting responsibly enough to be watching after a white toddler. The encounter gets recorded by a white bystander, she’s eventually rescued from the situation by Briar’s dad, and it gets swept under the rug without the whole thing going public.

But the personal and emotional repercussions for Emira, Kelley (the bystander), and Alix (Briar’s mom and Emira’s would-be mentor) are more than anyone bargained for. Emira is just trying to figure out what she wants out of life, Kelley is playing cool about all of it (but maybe a little too cool), and Alix is trying to hide a checkered past while building a brand and a new life in Philly.

At first, the writing seemed a little simple. Emira was coming off more as 17 than 25. But in thinking about it, I’m sure that Reid did all this on purpose. All the characters start out pretty clean and likable, Emira comes off as needing rescuing—from everything, and the reader isn’t really sure what sort of story is going to emerge. By the end, the likable characters have embarrassed themselves, some secrets come out, and the hidden motivations of everyone get revealed. It certainly had me thinking about the assumptions I make and the way I see myself in relation to people who don’t appear to have it all together.

Such a Fun Age is a smart, deceptively well-written book that I can highly recommend. Definitely one you’ll be thinking about long afterwards.

That’s all for me this week. I’d love to hear what you’re reading! Thanks for the time and inbox space; I really appreciate it.